The Labor Department said Friday that job openings rose 1.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted 4 million, the most in 5 1/2 years. And the number of people quitting increased 1.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted 2.4 million, a five-year high.
Job openings haven’t topped 4 million since March 2008, just a few months after the Great Recession began. Openings at that level are generally consistent with a healthy job market.
And more workers quitting can also be a positive signal, because people usually quit when they either have a new job — typically for more pay — or are confident they can find one.
The data suggest the competition for jobs is getting a little bit easier. There were 2.7 unemployed workers for each available job in November, down from 6.7 just after the recession ended in July 2009. In a healthy economy the ratio is roughly 2 to 1.
More job openings and quits suggest greater opportunities for the unemployed. But those positive trends haven’t recently translated into additional hiring. Overall hiring ticked up just 0.2 percent in November to nearly 4.5 million.
The figures also follow a disappointing report on December job growth. The government last week said employers added just 74,000 jobs in December. That’s the fewest in three years and below an average gain of 214,000 in the previous three months.
The unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, the lowest in more than five years. But the rate dropped mostly because more Americans gave up looking for work. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively hunting for jobs.
Last week’s employment report shows net payroll gains — the number of people hired minus those who were laid off, quit or retired. Friday’s report, known as the Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey, provides more details.
For example, it shows the overall number of people hired each month, rather than just the net gain. Total hires reached 4.6 million in September, a five-year high, but hiring has dipped since then.
In the past year, the number of job openings has increased 5.6 percent. But total hiring is only 1.7 percent higher.
Economists point to several reasons for the gap. Employers may not be offering sufficient pay and benefits to persuade more workers to take the jobs. They may also be pickier, believing they can find top-notch candidates with the unemployment rate still elevated.
Many employers say they can’t find enough qualified workers, particularly in high-skilled industries such as manufacturing and information technology.
Both Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, who will succeed Bernanke as chairman next month, have cited greater overall hiring and quits as key signs of the job market’s improvement.
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